Study abroad nightlife: Dancing in Dakar

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It’s 9 p.m. in Dakar, Senegal, and the night hasn’t even begun. 

My friends and I walk through the dirt streets of our neighborhood to a birthday party for one of our Senegalese friends, stopping every other minute to say hello to people on the street — friends and strangers alike. We step around old tires and stray cats and avoid an entire soccer field where we know a local cow has taken up residence. He does NOT like to be awoken at night. 

 We arrive an hour late, that is to say, in “Senegalese time,” perfectly punctual. At our friend’s home, we mingle and help set up rugs on every open space on the floor. At 10 p.m., the birthday boy’s sisters and mom appear from the kitchen with five enormous bowls of rice and meat. We all move around the bowls together, using spoons or our hands to eat in the traditional Senegalese style, filling our stomachs to the brim before being kindly forced to ‘lekal’ (eat more!). The party ends by singing “Happy Birthday” in English, French and in the local language, Wolof, we thank our host and part ways.

A group of us are headed back to one of our homes. It’s 11:30 p.m. when we fall into bed. Goodnight! Not! We set an alarm, fall into our post-meal slumber, and try to mentally prepare ourselves for the night ahead.

 At 12:30 a.m., we wake up and get ready to go out. After trading our long skirts and T-shirts for jeans and crop tops (a necessity, our Senegalese friends explained), and putting on makeup that hasn’t been touched since we got off the plane, we are ready to go out.

At 1 a.m. in the United States, parties are being shut down by the cops, half of the partygoers too drunk to continue and soon passing out on the floor or heading home. In Dakar, a primarily Muslim city where drinking alcohol is extremely uncommon, 1 a.m. is the beginning of the night. 

We meet up with the rest of our friends to catch a cab to a club in the city center. Although our neighborhood Ouakam is closing up shop for the night, downtown Dakar is alive. People are everywhere. Some are dressed up like us, ready to dance, and others are just sitting on stoops or curbsides, smoking, chatting, laughing and living.

The club is not unlike those in the States — loud music (Senegalese and African artists, 2000s American pop, and to the dismay of the American students in the club, the Macarena) and sweaty people are common. Yet, the beating heart of the night is the dancing. 

Dancing in Dakar is an art. Yes, there is the typical, “let me rub my body on yours” style that makes frat boys feel at home. But here, the dancing is so much more than that. Everyone can dance. Not just wiggle or sway their hips, but move their bodies with memorizing synchronicity. 

The first time I went dancing with one of my Senegalese friends, one fell on the floor laughing at my lack of coordination. She then proceeded to move her legs so quickly that I thought she was flying, hovering above the ground, hands above her head, head turned toward the sky. It’s the kind of dancing you never learn, you just somehow know how to do. It makes me wish that I grew up here, surrounded by rhythm, movement and the vibrancy of life.

But I did not grow up here. This is not my home. That can make it uncomfortable. Oftentimes I didn’t understand the customs or language and I said the wrong thing or danced with the wrong person. Sometimes I was made uncomfortable by Senegalese beliefs that would be unacceptable in the United States. But that’s the importance of studying abroad —learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, learning about other people and teaching them about yourself. Once you open yourself to new music, there is nothing left to do but dance.  

Oh, and dancing makes the night fly by. Have you ever danced for four hours completely sober? That’s the magic of Dakar; it’s easy, magnificent and terribly fun. Yet when 6 a.m. rolls around, even the blood-pumping music of Wally Seck cannot keep our eyes open. We flood into the cool morning air, the sky just starting to lighten, and we take in the beauty of the city, alive with the colors and smells of the coming day. 

But for us, the day is not beginning. The night is ending, and we fall into our beds, tuck in our mosquito nets and promptly sleep in until 2 p.m. in the afternoon. 

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].